On, Wisconsin!

The election ground game in the Badger State is a grinding door-to-door battle for every vote.

Published October 7, 2004 9:34PM (EDT)

In the presidential battleground state of Wisconsin, West Allis is a political free-fire zone where a guerrilla campaign is being waged house to house. In this old, inner-ring suburb of Milwaukee, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000 by just 184 votes out of 29,050 cast -- and some precincts were split precisely in half. West Allis is still starkly divided, and no issue is more divisive than the war in Iraq.

The suburb's residents are largely aging, white, working- and middle-class families, many of whom have bumped through long layoffs and wrenching job changes as global economic forces and unsupportive public policies have roiled the highly skilled manufacturing industries of southeast Wisconsin. While their economic interests and worries may tilt them toward the Democrats, concern about taxes, social conservatism (especially opposition to abortion) and now anxieties about war or terrorism tilt many to the Republicans.

On streets of comfortable but modest bungalows and ranch houses decorated with ambitious displays of Halloween ghosts, jack-o'-lanterns and witches, ubiquitous yard signs for Kerry-Edwards are typically juxtaposed with signs for Bush-Cheney. But the steady stream of people knocking on doors these days are not trick-or-treaters. They are canvassers on behalf of the presidential candidates, assiduously pursuing "lazy Republicans" or "swing Democrats" before a final blitz to get every voter to the polls -- or better yet, to vote absentee in advance.

The broadcast "air war" in Wisconsin is intense. The state is one of the top five in overall television and radio advertising by or for the presidential candidates, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project. The Center for Public Integrity reports that since last June Wisconsin has been the top state for advertising for both sides by the independent "527" groups, named after the tax code provision that permits their existence -- such as the Swift Boat Veterans and Progress for America Voter Fund (the top spender) for Bush and the Media Fund and MoveOn.org Voter Fund for John Kerry.

Both sides agree that the race in Wisconsin could very well be as close as it was in 2000. Then Gore won by 5,708 votes out of nearly 2.5 million (with 94,070 going to Ralph Nader, who once again is on the ballot). The state has a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators (including incumbent Russell Feingold, favored strongly for reelection), an even split among the eight members of the U.S. House, and both houses of the state Legislature under the control of conservative Republicans. It has produced politicians ranging from red-baiting Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy to Earth Day founder Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson. Hardcore Democratic strongholds in Milwaukee, Madison and the far north balance the Republican strongholds in other rural areas and the suburbs. Going into the first presidential debate, Bush led in the polls, which ranged from three statistical ties to three other polls showing Bush leading by eight to 14 points (numbers that even Bush partisans dismissed as far-fetched).

Both sides also agree that with a tight contest, the electoral war is likely to be determined by the boots on the ground -- the armies of paid and volunteer workers who have spent many months trying to register new voters, identify supporters, persuade the undecided, and eventually get every possible friendly voter to the polling places. On that front, Kerry seems to have the advantage, even though Republicans have been trying since 2002 to gear up an effort to combat the old-fashioned politicking that the labor movement has revived with great success since 1996. Groups supporting Kerry -- or doing work that indirectly helps Kerry -- have a larger and more diverse effort on the ground, which nearly every knowledgeable participant describes as unprecedented in size, scope and sophistication.

In the days after the first presidential debate, it appeared that Kerry had done well enough among the remaining sliver of persuadable or undecided voters to tighten the race in Wisconsin and make the ground war even more critical. Equally important, his performance energized the foot soldiers, those who have to endure hours of knocking on doors of empty homes, snarling dogs and hostile rejections by partisans of their opponent.

The morning after the first debate, Ken Morton, 32, a food-service manager for the Milwaukee Public Schools, and Reyna Rundberg, 56, a nursing-home worker from Chicago, gathered at the headquarters of the Milwaukee County Labor Council to start yet another day of intensive political work, modeled on a union organizing drive. They would drive through West Allis and try to track down undecided union members and persuade them to vote for Kerry. Both are among the 2,038 "Heroes" the Service Employees International Union has recruited, reimbursing their salaries, for months of work in 11 battleground states.

As Rundberg drove her aging Nissan sedan in search of the first person on their list, she and Morton excitedly reviewed Kerry's best jabs in the debate. Rundberg liked how Kerry contrasted his awkward explanation of his vote on $87 billion for Iraq with Bush's bigger mistake of rushing to war. Morton thought Kerry scored when he chided Bush for not listening "to what his own father said about Iraq" becoming an occupation nightmare. Both had become much more passionate about politics after the Florida voting debacle in 2000 and were excited to be able to take off from work to campaign. But Morton admitted that until recently he'd felt "leery" about Kerry, worrying that he hadn't spelled out his plans clearly enough. No longer. "I'm fired up," he said. The debate "was exciting. I didn't think it would be so clear."

Despite the fruitless search for many of the people on their list (and one curt rebuff from a Bush supporter), their quest may have helped nudge a few votes to Kerry. Retired electrician James Preston remained undecided, but reports of the debate (which he had inadvertently slept through) impressed him. "We are at war," he said. "No matter what the economy is, this country's at war. But I actually think Bush got us into it, and I don't approve of how he did it. He should have consulted with other nations." Ninety-two-year-old Evelyn Kluever, on the other hand, was enthusiastically for Kerry, even though she thought he should fight back harder against Bush. And she was hopeful that Arthur -- her more taciturn live-in partner, a retired union member leaning toward Bush -- had been swayed toward Kerry.

Kevin Mahnke, a foundry worker and union member, aptly characterized the conflicting pulls from each campaign. "Before the debate, I kind of had my mind made up [for Bush], but afterwards I wasn't so sure," he said, standing in front of his apartment door, decorated with a "Support Our Troops" poster. Mahnke, 46, has tended to vote more Republican in recent elections (though he supported Ross Perot in 1992), reversing his youthful preference for Democrats. While he strongly disapproves of abortion, opposes gun control, distrusts the United Nations and didn't like President Clinton, he is deeply angry about the jobs being shipped overseas, wants an alternative energy plan to cut our dependence on oil, and has turned against Bush's tax cuts. "It seems to me the greedier are getting greedier," he said. "These tax cuts sounded good, but it didn't trickle down. It trickled up."

He is torn about the war in Iraq. In the debate, he was irritated by Bush's smirking, stuttering, "cowboy" manner and was impressed that Kerry seemed to have a plan for Iraq. "We're there, and things are starting to look bad," Mahnke said. "You've got to have an exit plan. I don't think George is thinking properly." But he still leans ever so slightly to Bush, he said, as Morton handed him a detailed comparison of the two candidates on the issues and promised to stay in touch.

The next morning, Republican Brandon Rosner, a 24-year-old engineer who ran an energetic but ultimately losing campaign for the Milwaukee City Council last spring, was out in the same neighborhoods, pursuing people thought to lean Republican but with "spotty voting records." He had prepared scripts, tailored to what the campaign thought were each voter's concerns. The first, reinforced by a leaflet handed to everyone, focused on social issues -- abortion, gay marriage, judicial conservatism; the second, on taxes; and the third, on an upbeat but generic account of the president's actions on healthcare and the economy. The first two voters Rosner encountered -- a building maintenance engineer and a Teamster truck driver -- said they were solidly pro-Bush, mainly because they supported Bush's military action in Iraq.

The next pursuit was Rich Gillard, a steelworker forced into early retirement when his employer shifted production that had once employed more than 2,000 workers to Brazil and China. A Rush Limbaugh ditto-head and avid follower of Fox News, Gillard abandoned the Democrats for Ronald Reagan, then switched to Perot, and now denounces illegal immigrants, taxes, mosques in the United States, abortion and the liberalism of his college-educated kids. He loves the PATRIOT Act and is willing to let anyone search his house and even look for the guns he keeps. He's largely resigned to the closing of factories as inevitable, though he owes his early pension to the work of his union, which sees Bush as a deadly threat to organized labor. But he does not see Kerry as an alternative. "What good have the Democrats done?" he asked. "Who was the guy who instigated NAFTA? Clinton."

The "lazy Republican" list included a few clinkers. Germaine Jahn, 77, a retired accountant, voted for Bush last time but will not now. "I don't like the man," she said. "I don't like what he's done to the economy. He hasn't done anything good. This time I'm going back to the Democrats." And who knows how Donald Lyons, 64, ended up on Rosner's list. The machinist had to scramble for seven years to get a job that paid close to the one he lost in 1990 when his employer moved out of the country. "The man has no foreign policy," Lyons said of Bush. "The economy is worthless. There's nothing for the middle class. He's killing us, all for tax breaks for people making over $500,000."

Ever the optimist, Rosner figures his visit will at least help clean up the list for the next election by removing the Lyons household. Over the course of the morning, he had handed out two absentee ballot applications. "There might be two more votes for the president," he said. "That makes my day."

Two years ago, Republicans launched a final 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort in Wisconsin and other states after seeing that Democrats often outperformed them in the preelection polls on Election Day. "Now the polls have us up quite a bit," said one Bush campaign strategist in Wisconsin, "but I think it's a lot closer. I think it will be the ground game -- who can motivate their base and turn them out -- that will decide it. What we've been doing the whole time is talking with undecideds: Are you pro-life? Do you hunt? Are you concerned about national security?"

Most of the Republican ground game is being organized by the party and the Bush campaign, which claims 41,000 volunteers so far in the state. (The number includes people working in offices, disseminating signs and attending parades as well as canvassers and phone bank operators.) There are some complementary efforts by sympathetic groups but little on the ground. The National Rifle Association has run long infomercials and is mailing material to its supporters.

Although there is a strong and influential antiabortion movement, it seems disconnected from the presidential race. Christian Coalition national president Roberta Combs says, "We are very focused on Wisconsin. We plan to do voter guides. We're putting together a pretty massive grass-roots organization precinct by precinct." But other conservatives and some Republicans are skeptical. "The Christian Coalition is kind of anemic" here, says Matt Sande, spokesman for Pro-Life Wisconsin, which criticizes Bush for supporting any exceptions to abortion. "It's not existent in Wisconsin."

Kerry supporters working on the ground, however, are legion, though they often involve a bewildering array of groups that are related but distinct because they were established under the tax code as 501(c)3, 501(c)4, 527 or other types of organizations, limiting both any coordination with the Kerry campaign and to what extent -- if any -- they can advocate for a candidate.

There's also the traditional coordinated effort of the Kerry campaign itself and the Democratic Party, which claims 100 staff, 23 offices and 1,600 trained war leaders around the state, many of them working on phone banks, canvassing and providing support for the frequent trips of the candidates and surrogates to Wisconsin. But the efforts beyond the campaign are even more substantial.

The labor movement -- representing 18 percent of the state's workforce, nearly half again above the national average -- has played the largest and longest role in direct mobilization. In 2000, polling indicated that 32 percent of Wisconsin voters came from union households. And union members vote more Democratic than people just like them who are not in unions.

"What we've been doing this year is just so far beyond anything we've ever done or attempted before that there's just no comparison," says state AFL-CIO president David Newby. "That includes the amount of communication taking place, the number of staff that unions have released to work the plan, the degree to which contact with union members is direct rather than indirect through mail." And labor leaders, including international union presidents, are doing much more than previously to keep track of who's doing what and spur laggards on, state federation executive vice president Sarah Rogers says.

The unions' grass-roots campaign started much earlier, too. "Activity hasn't really stopped since four years ago," says Seth Johnson, political director for Wisconsin AFSCME (public employees). "We've been campaigning for four years." Unions are sending members lots of literature, emphasizing the Bush records on jobs, healthcare and issues such as the right to organize unions and the elimination of overtime protection for millions of workers, but with only oblique criticism of the war in Iraq, which the Wisconsin AFL-CIO recently condemned. The Service Employees International Union, which nationally is spending $65 million on its political work, has also run television ads about healthcare.

But the heart of the effort is having union representatives talk to members at work and union members go door-to-door to talk to fellow unionists. By September more than 2,000 labor volunteers had reached at least 65,000 out of roughly 300,000 members at their homes, including a canvass that took place the evening of Bush's convention acceptance speech.

The other major ground effort is a newcomer, America Coming Together, a 527 group that has benefited from the largess of financier George Soros and other big Democratic donors. ACT's operation is larger than even labor's, but it also benefits from union support, like the SEIU Heroes assigned to its canvassing. "We have scores of canvassers, knocking on doors, dropping literature, taking the pulse of voters," says ACT spokesman Phil Walzack. "This allows us to come back and show how the Bush administration has failed on jobs, healthcare and education. We've aggressively pushed information about how Bush shortchanges homeland security, like cutting funding for air marshals." By late September, according to one account, ACT representatives had knocked on 900,000 doors in Wisconsin.

There are many smaller initiatives, but nearly all of the advocacy groups outside the campaign come together under the umbrella of America Votes, which is also linked to the Media Fund, a 527 group that runs TV advertising. "What I try to do is make sure they're talking to each other, sharing information and resources and not duplicating in ways that don't make sense," says America Votes state director Peter Shakow. "You don't want the League of Conservation Voters knocking on a door and 10 minutes later the Sierra Club knocking on the same door."

Besides environmental groups, America Votes coordinates with ACT, pro-choice organizations (Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America), MoveOn.org, organized labor, Citizen Action (a 76,000-member consumer and citizens' rights group) and other groups focused on minority voters, youth and students, and gays. Even groups with similar agendas divide up the electorate. For example, the League of Conservation Voters is targeting more than 150,000 households with a broad message on jobs, healthcare, energy independence and the environment. The smaller Sierra Club Voter Education Project is targeting undecided voters with a comparison of the two presidential candidates on national environmental issues in areas where there are strong local concerns about the environment, such as working-class south Milwaukee, situated near a sewage-treatment plant, a neglected Superfund site and four coal-fired power plants.

Even though Wisconsin voters can register on Election Day, there has been an extensive effort to pre-register young voters (especially on campuses), minority communities and union members, often by officially nonpartisan groups that simply register and turn out voters. But when these efforts target heavily Democratic constituencies, like African-Americans, Democratic candidates disproportionately benefit. Citizen Action Fund, for example, works independently of its parent organization and has registered 28,000 new black and Latino voters. It will contact them and an additional 100,000 infrequent-voter households as many as nine times with literature and calls about the issues at stake -- "schools over jails, stopping racial profiling, ending unfair immigration laws, choosing healthcare over drug company profits, or creating an economy that creates good jobs," according to fund director Larry Marx. ("Peace over war" was too partisan, lawyers advised.) In one imaginative twist, the fund has created a service-learning project in 70 schools involving a curriculum on voting rights. As part of the curriculum, 2,000 schoolchildren in wards with low voter turnout have been spreading a message to adults throughout the ward: "Vote for me. I can't."

But the biggest boost for mobilizing African-American voters in Milwaukee -- and thus a bonus for Kerry -- may be the primary victory of state Sen. Gwen Moore, who will become the state's first black representative in Congress if she wins. Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to suppress the black vote, Walzack charges, for example, by backing a previously unknown group called People of Color United, financed by a white Republican millionaire insurance magnate who promotes health savings accounts and school vouchers, which has taken out ads in the black community denouncing both tickets as composed of "superwealthy white men" with no interest in blacks.

In rural areas of the state, both the Kerry campaign and independent groups are working to mobilize Native Americans, who traditionally have not participated strongly but lean Democratic, and rural voters, who are often abandoned to the Republicans. "We're putting organizations on the ground in north-central and southwest Wisconsin, finding media in town newspapers and seeing if we can get voters interested in self-interest economic issues instead of the social issues of guns, God and gays," says League of Rural Voters director Niel Ritchie. Still, the Kerry campaign plays up his interest in hunting in an attempt to neutralize the fears of gun owners. (The NRA and Republicans have scoffed at Kerry for trying to bolster his credentials by participating in a skeet shoot in Wisconsin.)

There are limits to even the best grass-roots efforts, however. The character of the candidates and the campaigns, and external developments with the war, the economy and even terrorism, are all potential limiting factors. Although Wisconsin's economy has rebounded more than that of other Midwestern battleground states, there has been no net job growth; 75,000 manufacturing jobs were lost from March 2001 to January 2004, while median family income has been falling and inequality rising, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

The pro-Kerry troops think they will prevail if Kerry can present a credible alternative to Bush on both the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism while giving more of a populist jolt to his message about jobs and healthcare. "Our war is for those Republicans in our membership who otherwise agree with us on health and jobs issues," says Citizen Action's co-director Bob Hudek. "The war is probably what's keeping them with Bush. We've seen some data that the war is helping the president a little bit more in Wisconsin than in some of the other swing states." But if the war news continues to worsen, the post-debate response suggests there are anxious voters ready to turn away from Bush.

"The ultimate question is that we have to be close enough for the field operations to win it, within three or four points in the polls," says SEIU state political director Robert Kraig. "If Kerry gets slaughtered on issues, it's hard to win with a ground operation. But I don't think the fundamentals of the race have changed. It's a closely divided state that should go Democratic. We've done everything to lay the basis for a ground operation -- better than we've ever had. It will be close, but it's there for the taking."

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

MORE FROM David Moberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Wisconsin